Absently, Kate looked around the empty gymnasium floor which, twenty minutes ago, had served as the classroom for the Dog Obedience School she’d attended that evening. The course had ended for the day, the other participants long since gone in the aftermath. All except for Kate. Kate and Ashley Burns.
“I’m not sure what happened,” Ashley wept then, her arms crossed over her chest protectively. Her red-rimmed eyes stared questioningly up into Kate’s face. “He just—he just came over last night; he was sorry but he just wasn’t sure he was still in love with me…said he needed some space…!”
Another bout of tears followed that last, heart-wrenching statement.
Without thought, Kate grabbed for the broken girl, bringing her tightly into her arms. “Oh Ashley, I’m so sorry,” she whispered into her hair, Kate’s arms rubbing comfortingly circles on her back.
“This can’t be happening,” Ashley wailed impotently. “We were doing so good. At least, I thought we were. I love him, Kate. I’ve loved him for so long. I just want—!”
“I know, I know,” Kate murmured softly. She wasn’t sure what to say. It had all happened so quickly. One minute Kate and Ashley had been standing beside one another, trading idle gossip, their dogs winding down from the rigorous paces they’d been set through that evening and in the next, Ashley had sniffled, hiccupped, and then rashly confided that her boyfriend (who she’d finally revealed as Jake) had broken up with her. Kate was the first person she’d told. In fact, Ashley had hardly said it out loud until that moment; it hurt too much.
Fast-forward to now, Kate desperately holding her fast while that girl gave vent to her feelings. Danger, looking mildly bored at this hold-up, nonetheless sat patiently at Kate’s heels, his eyelids drooping closed. At least, she didn’t have to worry about him.
Moving out of Kate’s arms, Ashley brought a shaky hand up to her face, anxiously wiping the tracks of tears from her cheeks. “I just keep remembering all these amazing moments we shared—the time he surprised me with tickets to the ballet; I’d never been to one before; he was bored out of his mind, but he took me anyway…or the weekend we spent in New York with his brother. He played the tour guide so I could see a little something of that remarkable place—let me pick everywhere we went. Or his birthday last year…!” Ashley swallowed back a wail. “I don’t understand what happened—what did I do?”
Kate stuffed her hands in her pockets. “I’m sure—”
Then, as if she’d suddenly realized who she was talking to, Ashley pulled herself up to her tallest height. “Please don’t tell anyone about this,” she pleaded urgently. “Jake and I—no one is supposed to know about us. I couldn’t stand it if they did—not now!”
“I promise I won’t,” Kate said quickly, sincerely. “I wouldn’t do that. Your secret is safe with me.”
Ashley sniffled. “I just want him back Kate. That’s all. I want him back.”
Fifteen minutes later, walking out to her car, Kate suppressed a sigh. In a way, she felt responsible for Ashley’s pain. Wasn’t she the one who’d wanted Jake to be free—wasn’t she the one who’d quietly waited—silently hoped—for something like this to happen? Well, now it had and Kate couldn’t have been less pleased, couldn’t have felt less triumphant.
Letting her car warm up for a moment—the night was carrying a chilling breeze—Kate reached for her phone; she’d kept it on silence during the dog obedience class. Now, looking down at the screen, she was surprised to note three missed calls from Penny. Mentally rolling her eyes, Kate prepared herself for any eventuality as she called her back.
“Hello? Kate, where the hell have you been?” Penny demanded upon answering the phone.
“Dog training,” Kate said noncommittally. “Why, what’s up?” Judging by the tone of Penny’s voice just then—a mixture of impatience, with equal doses excitement and anticipation, clearly this wasn’t an emergency.
“Big news: I just heard, Jake broke up with his girlfriend,” Penny expulsed on a rush of breath.
“Yeah. I know,” Kate answered drily.
“You know?” Penny asked, sounding bummed at not having been the person to deliver the news. “Who told you?”
“Yeah, I know,” Kate repeated. “And nevermind who,” she insisted crisply, warding off Penny’s more inquisitive nature.
“Kate the vision I had—the two shadowy men!”
“Oh, Penny don’t start in on that again,” Kate cried. She’d just spent the last fifteen minutes consoling the poor girl he’d dumped. Even Kate wasn’t hard-hearted enough to summon pleasure out of the incident—or hope, for that matter.
“Are you going to try and tell me you aren’t the least bit interested? That you don’t feel the tug-of-war my vision foresaw?”
Kate remained stubbornly silent.
“I’m just saying, there’s something there, between you two, even if you’re too chicken to admit it. I see the look that comes into your eyes whenever his name is mentioned.”
“There’s no look,” Kate scoffed.
“Sure there is! It’s the same one you get whenever Jackson comes around,” Penny argued, making her case nicely. “And don’t bother denying it. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes. Maggie has as well.”
“You guys are awfully chummy lately,” Kate grumbled. She didn’t like having them on the same side—not when it meant she was pitted two against one anyway.
“Don’t try to change the subject,” Penny said. “I’m serious Kate. What are you going to do about Jake?”
Backing her car out of the parking lot, Kate pulled onto the street. Her fingers against the steering wheel were white. “What am I going to do?! Are you kidding me? Nothing—that’s what I’m going to do! For Christ’s sake, Penny, the man just broke up with someone.” Doesn’t proper decorum call for even the most desperate of man-hunters to wait a day before stalking their newfound prey?
“I wasn’t talking about this very minute,” Penny argued, but she sounded a little sheepish now. “I just don’t want you to let fear keep you from something—”
“I am not afraid. I am, however, hanging up now,” Kate insisted and, with the flick of her finger, did just that. Tossing the phone onto her passenger seat, Kate called over to Danger, safely kenneled in the back. “You’ve got it made, you know. You got sniped at an early age. You’ll never know the frustrations I’m currently living!”
Kate stood inside the dingy bar, her eyes slowly adjusting to the soft lighting, her heart thudding sickeningly against her chest. She wasn’t sure why she was there. Scratch that: she knew exactly why she was there….she just wasn’t ready to admit it to herself, not just yet.
Jake had looked terrible at work that morning, his eyes bloodshot, his skin secreting the evidence of a late-night bender. She’d tried not to notice, but it was hard, knowing what she did, while simultaneously knowing she shouldn’t know it at all! It made for a confusing day.
That’s how she’d ended up at Julie’s Diner, at nine o’clock at night, on the weak pretense of getting a cheeseburger for herself. Julie’s was Jake’s favorite watering hole and, well, if he just happened to be there as well, that would be a handy coincidence, right?
Walking up to the bar, her eyes scanning the patrons pulled up alongside its high counter, Kate felt a momentary stab of disappointment: Jake wasn’t counted amongst them. Not that it mattered, she reminded herself. She hadn’t come here for him anyway; (so, okay, the burger had been an excuse, but she’d be damned if she’d leave without one, especially now. She had her pride!) Calling out the unwanted to-go order—Danger would be only to glad to eat in on Kate’s behalf—she pulled out a chair at the bar. She might as well have something to drink while she waited.
She’d just ordered herself a glass of wine when the door the bathroom banged open from down the hall. The sound was loud, clumsily, and, craning her neck at the unexpectedness of it all, Kate’s eyes followed the noise…landing with a thud against the frame of one very inebriated Jake.
Jake! He was there!
Averting her face, Kate suddenly felt like the chicken Penny had recently accused her of being. Now that she’d spotted him, his steps none too steady as he barreled down the corridor,
Kate wanted only to run and hide, pretend she wasn’t there. Her bravado fading quickly, she wished herself back at home, wished Jake as far away from her as possible.
What the hell had she been thinking, coming here like this? Just how desperate, how low, how pathetic could she get? Ducking her head, Kate closed her eyes, praying that, in his current state of mind, Jake wouldn’t notice her at the bar.
“Kate?” The slurred speech did little to disguise Jake’s voice.
So much for prayer.
Turning toward the sound of his voice, Kate worked up a look of mock surprise. “Jake? Uh, what are you doing here?”
He smiled crookedly. “Probably the same thing as yourself,” he said, pointing to the alcoholic drink set in front of her person.
Kate swallowed. Even drunk, Jake had a way of making her sound like the stupid one.
“Right,” she said softly.
Without waiting for an invitation, Jake sat down in the empty bar stool beside hers. For a moment, neither of them spoke. Kate took a dainty sip of her cabernet.
“Come to check up on me?” Jake asked with dead precision.
Sputtering, the wine lodged in her throat, Kate patted a hand against her chest. “What?” she asked breathily.
Jake inclined his head. “Don’t play dumb. I saw the way you were looking at me earlier today at work, watching me, that cute worried look on your face,” he said, tapping Kate on the nose. “You don’t have a very good poker face. It was right there: that combination of sadness and pity, like you saw right to the inside of me, knew something you shouldn’t—Kind, sweet Kate…that’s why you’re really here, isn’t it?”
Kate stared, open-mouthed. Was she that obvious?
“Because you do know, don’t you?” he persisted. “About me and Ashley?”
Shrugging awkwardly, Kate decided upon the truth. “Yes—”
“Do you also know that it’s all your fault?” Jake asked then, his voice even, conversational, a goofy grin splitting across his face.
“What?” Kate was starting to feel like a parrot here.
“Ever since you came to town,” he said groggily, “I can’t get you out of my head.”
Kate’s eyes popped. Had he actually said that?
Jake may not have been lucid, but his next words were clear enough: “You’re so beautiful. And-and smart, independent,… yet there’s something so fragile about you too. A conundrum—that’s what you are!” He smiled hazily. “I think about you…all the time,” he cried languidly, his voice undulating rapidly in his stupor, his filter shut off—the words leaving his lips without regulation. “And I forget about everything else. You’re there, all the time, even when you’re not! I couldn’t—I was cheating Ashley.”
Kate thought her heart would beat right out of her chest. Her nerves were a live thing, thrumming against her body, her ears drowned by the anxious beating there…Jake wanted her?
His rough laugh broke into her thoughts. “You’ve disrupted my whole life, did you know that?”
“Jake—” While Kate couldn’t deny the spark of attraction his words brought her, she also couldn’t ignore the consequences they proposed. Other lives were involved here, and despite her feelings, Kate liked Ashley. They were becoming friends. How could she turn her back on that?
She was standing smack dab in the middle of the clichéd rock and hard place. She needed time to process this. Jake needed time to sober up.
“Jake,” she tried again, “you’ve had too much to drink.”
“No, no, no,” he disagreed, waving her words aside. “I’ve had just enough. Just enough to tell you how I feel—”
Before he was allowed to get any further, Kate abruptly stood up, pushing her chair back nosily as she did so. Holding up her hand, she interrupted him. “Jake, stop!” Once he said the words, no matter how hard she tired, Kate knew she’d never be able to unheard them. Not like this. She didn’t want it to happen like this!
“I’m crazy about you Kate.”
But she shook her head to this—almost frantically, reminding herself that he was way over the limit, that he was hurting, that he probably didn’t mean half the stuff he was saying. His words were intoxicating, filled with a promise she’d hardly dared to hope for but…in the sober light of day, he’d inevitably regret them and Kate, being Kate, would never forgive herself for having believed them—even just for a second.
“No! I can’t do this. We can’t do this,” she swore, the words torn from her throat forcibly. Without giving him the chance to change her mind, Kate turned on her heel and, half-running out the front door, the take-out long forgotten, the soft echo of Jake’s voice crying out her name ringing against her ears, she left.
“He said what?” Penny asked, pulling the sash on her robe tightly against her body.
“Oh Kate,” Maggie wailed softly, her hand reaching out grasp her tightly balled up fists.
The three of them were standing in Penny’s living room. It was half-past midnight, but no one seemed to notice the hour. After leaving Julie’s, Kate had lost little time in sending out the mayday text that had resulted in this impromptu get-together. Sleep was out of the question; she needed a little perspective.
Shrugging inelegantly, Kate sighed. “He basically accused me of being the reason he broke it off with Ashley.”
Penny made a face. “Can’t say I didn’t see that coming,” she said drolly.
Maggie smiled sadly. “He is awfully protective of you.”
“But-but I can’t—how am I supposed to respond to that?” Kate asked.
“How do you want to respond?” Maggie asked instead.
“I don’t know!” Kate cried in frustration. “That’s the whole point. I don’t know!”
“Shh,” Penny hushed softly. “Kate, this isn’t a decision that needs to be made tonight. You’ve all but said that yourself. Breathe.”
“I wish I would have never walked into that bar,” Kate moaned.
“Yeah, what happened to the whole, I’m going to do nothing, thing?” Penny asked.
Kate glowered at her. “Comments like that are the opposite of helpful.”
Penny didn’t look the least bit contrite. “Sorry.”
“Isn’t there some kind of cosmic plan you can point me toward? Some meditation session you can perform which will answer the question for me?” Kate pleaded.
Penny smiled sadly. “It doesn’t work that way, sweetie. Free will is a very large part of that plan.”
“Well, that’s stupid,” Kate pouted. “It was your vision that got me into this mess in the first place. Seems only fair it should help get me out of it, too.”
“Kate, you don’t need someone—or something—to tell you what to do,” Maggie interrupted.
“That’s right,” Penny agreed. “Remember, you’re not just going to sit by anymore and allow others to live your life for you.”
“You know, no one likes to have their words tossed back in their face,” Kate said, but her voice was softer now, calmer.
Three elongated shadows danced across the walls of Penny’s house. Kate took refuge in the impressions marked there. She had great friends. Her love life may be the pits, but at least she had Penny and Maggie.
“I’m sorry,” she said then, “I’m being a brat. I’m the one who pulled you out bed, asked for your help…I’m sorry.”
Maggie laughed softly. “Kate, we love you.”
“Very much,” Penny agreed.
“Lean on us, that’s what we’re here for,” Maggie insisted. “Call at odd hours, confide your frustrations, good mood or bad mood, we can take it. We take all of you babe.”
Kate smiled. She’d never really known love before, not like this anyway. “Thank you.” Two simple words, but the hearers received from them a wealth of meaning.
The next afternoon, as Kate was sitting at her kitchen table, pretending to study for an upcoming test, instead of which she just hearing Penny’s parting words from the night before: “Just consider,” she’d said, “if there were no Ashley, how would you then feel about what Jake said tonight? How would you react?”
Rubbing her tired eyes, Kate sighed. But there was an Ashley and, whatever Kate’s feelings for Jake, she played a very real role in this equation. Kate liked Jake; that was unquestioned. The kiss. The fantasies. They were testament to that. Only, on the other hand, Kate couldn’t help but wonder: Jake had always seemed like a safe sort of crush—he was taken, out of reach, of no real contest. Had she blown up her infatuation because of that, used it as something to relieve the boredom, all the while secure in the knowledge she’d never have to actually act on those feelings?
Her mind ping-ponging back and forth, Kate was startled from these ministrations by a sudden knock at her door. Her body tensed at the sound, her eyes growing large in a white face.
Oh god, not Jake.
Stealth mode taking over, Kate crept over to her kitchen window…head tucked low, only her eyes were visible as Kate spied the identity of this unannounced visitor. Breath whooshing out of her body, Kate was almost comically glad to see it wasn’t Jake’s car parked outside.
It was Jackson’s.
Tripping toward the front entrance, Kate’s thoughts raced: what would he be doing outside her house? Swinging the front door open, Kate smiled in greeting.
“Hey—please tell me I didn’t forget plans to play basketball or something?” she questioned in preamble.
He smiled. It looked funny though. “Ah—no, you didn’t,” he drawled, his brows furrowing together uncertainly. The usually cool, cocky school teacher looked anything but in that moment.
“What a relief,” Kate joked. “Won’t you come inside?” she invited, waving him forward.
Making quick work of the storm door standing between them, before Kate had time to realize his intentions, Jackson had done just that– striding determinedly across the threshold, the bulk of his body crowding hers in the small landing; without quite realizing how, Kate soon found herself pressed between the solid wood construction of her front door and the wall of his chest.
“Jackson?” she asked, her voice pitched in disbelief. The dilation of her eyes, the pulse beating rapidly against her throat, the sultry sound of his voice dripping oh-so-welcomingly off her tongue…Kate didn’t offer up even a token protest.
In response, his hands came up to cup her face, his head bending down, lips hovering over her mouth. “We never talked about it. You never asked,” he whispered, his eyes gauging her response. Kate leaned into his touch. “But I wanted you to know…”
His lips brushed lightly against her own, clinging softly in the silence that followed. With a low groan, Kate felt her body step even closer into his embrace, her arms, by their own volition, circling around his neck. And Kate kissed him back, the swell of his tongue receiving an instinctive, heady response in kind. In those brief moments, her stomach dropped away….